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Media Alerts - Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, Inc. v. Joyce - Eighth Circuit
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April 7, 2015
  Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, Inc. v. Joyce - Eighth Circuit
Headline Eighth Circuit panel holds that Missouri's House of Worship Protection Act violates the First Amendment right to free speech

Area of Law First Amendment

Issue(s) Presented Whether the district court properly upheld a Missouri statute prohibiting certain types of speech within or near a house of worship.

Brief Summary Appellant non-profit organizations and individuals regularly gather outside of Catholic churches to address sexual abuse by priests and other issues of public concern. They raised a facial First Amendment challenge to Missouri's House of Worship Protection Act (the "Act"), alleging that as written, the Act infringes on freedom of speech. The Act provides that a person commits a crime when he or she "intentionally and unreasonably disturbs, interrupts, or disquiets any house of worship by using profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or making noise either within the house of worship or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the worship services." The district court upheld the Act and granted summary judgment to the defendants, and the plaintiffs appealed.

Appellants argued on appeal that the Act's prohibition on using "profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior" chilled their expression and interfered with their ability to speak in public locations where their intended audience - church officials and parishioners - could be reached. The Eighth Circuit noted that the government's ability to regulate speech in traditionally public spaces, as the Act attempts to do by regulating speech "near" houses of worship, is very limited. In examining the constitutionality of the Act, the Eighth Circuit focused on whether the restriction on speech was content based, and thus subject to strict scrutiny, or content neutral (with only time, place, and manner restrictions), and thus subject to intermediate scrutiny. The Court held that on its face, the Act's prohibition was content based. To enforce the Act, officials would need to decide whether a protester was intentionally and unreasonably disturbing a house of worship, and also whether the message was profane, rude or indecent. Because these distinctions would be based on the nature of the message, the Act was a content based regulation.

The Eighth Circuit further found that, assuming the government interest in protecting free exercise of religion is compelling, the Act's content based prohibition on profane or rude speech was not necessary to protect that freedom. The Act could not survive strict scrutiny because it did not merely seek to protect houses of worship from disruption, but also attempted to limit the content of certain messages. Content neutral alternatives, such as noise regulations, were a less intrusive alternative.

The full text of the opinion may be found at Text

Panel Circuit Judges Loken, Murphy, and Wollman

Date of Issued Opinion March 9, 2015

Decided Reversed and remanded

Docket Number 13-3036

Counsel Anthony Rothert for Appellants and John Andrew Hirth for Appellees

Author Circuit Judge Murphy

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor Joelle Larson, University of Minnesota Law School

    Posted By: Joelle Larson @ 04/07/2015 10:21 AM     8th Circuit  

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